In the classic Chinese texts the “sage” 聖人was the highest category of human excellence. The sages were the legendary past rulers and founders (e.g. Wen Wang or the Duke of Zhou) together with hoped-for future saviors of equal merit. Both Confucius and Mencius demurred on their disciples’ suggestions that they were Sages, though Mencius did declare that Confucius was indeed a sage. The translation “sage” is not va very good one: the English word “sage” normally refers to a wise elder, but the Chinese sages were not only wise, but also holy and powerful, the founders or rulers of states, and their sageliness was apparent while they were still in their prime.
The Sage in Confucius and Mencius
The Sage is seen 26 times in the text of Laozi, but 18 or 19 of those appearences are within the phrase “Therefore the sage….” which is generally thought to be an editorial or authorial formula used to construct chapters by adding endings to them. The Sage is seen outside this formula in chapter 5, 19, 28, 49, 60, 66, 71, and 81, and of these appearances the ones in chapters 5, 28, 49, 60, 66, and 81 are most useful. (For Chapter 19, see Appendix I).
In Confucius and Mencius the Sage sets the standard for the highest possible human excellence, but does not actually play a critical role in either book. In Analects VI:30 Confucius names Yao and Shun as sages. In Analects VII:34 he denies that he himself is a sage; in both passages the sage is associated with仁 “benevolence”, the highest Confucian virtue except for sageliness itself. In Analects IX:6 the possibility that Confucius is a Sage is discussed by a high official, a disciple of Confucius, and later Confucius, with inconclusive results. Most references the Sage in Mencius are rather perfunctory. (II A1:8, II A2 17-28, II B 9:3, IV B 1:4, V B 1:5-7, VII B 25:7-8). Mencius refers to the great Sage Kings of the distant past, asserts that Confucius was the greatest of Sages, denies that he is himself a sage, and hopes for a future Sage who will redeem China.
The spiritual power of the Sage
One passage in Mencius, however, gives us our first clue about what the Sage actually is:
He who is great and transformative is called a Sage; a Sage who cannot be known is called a spirit. (Mencius VII B 25:7-8)
This passage is the only one in Confucius or Mencius to explicitly link the Sage to the spiritual world or the world of the unseen, treating him as a spiritual power in human form and speaking of his ability to transform 化 society, and this understanding of the sage appears in Laozi in a somewhat altered form. In the “Nei Ye” chapter of Guanzi, a meditational text thought to be of the same tradition as parts of Laozi, the Sage is also defined as a spiritual power in human form and identifies him with the essences of life:
The vital essence of all things is what makes them alive. Below it generates the five grains, above it makes starry constellations. When it circulates amid Heaven and Earth we call it “the spirits”, when it is stored in the human heart we call it The Sage. (“Nei Ye” I, Roth, p. 47)
In chapter 60 the Sage has power over the spirits rather than being an embodiment of the spirits. Under his rule, both the spirits and the sage himself are benign:
When the empire is ruled in accordance with Dao, the spirits are not potent. It’s not that the spirits aren’t potent, but that in their potency they don’t hurt men 傷人. It’s not only they who do not hurt men, the sage too does not hurt them. Laozi, chapter 60.
NOTE: The opening lines of this chapter are discussed in Appendix II. Appendix III discusses Hanfeizi’s interpretation of this chapter.
Heaven and earth observe their regular terms, and we have the four seasons complete. If rulers frame their measures according to regulations, resources suffer no injury, and the people receive no hurt.
This passage includes both the phrase不傷 “does not injure” in chapter 60 of the Daodejing and不害 “does not hurt” seen in a number of other chapters. (不害 is also the personal name of Shen Buhai).
The Sage does not harm men
This assurance that the Sage does not hurt men at first seems rather odd, but if you consider that the Sage is not merely a wise man, but one with exceptional spiritual powers, you can see the necessity of the assurance that he is benign. The sage’s benevolence is also negatively expressed as “not harming” by the proto-Daoist / proto-Legalist Shen Dao, a precursor of Laozi:
The Sage in high position does not harm (不害) men, though he cannot keep men from harming each other. It is the people themselves who eliminate the harm. (Shen Dao A5).
The harmlessness or imperviousness to harm of the Sage (or of Dao) is seen several other times in Laozi and also in the Nei Ye:
Therefore the Sage …. is in front [the leader], but the people do not feel harmed.
In Chapter 81 of Laozi it is not the Sage but the Way of Heaven that does no harm, though the Sage is paired with the Way of Heaven:
The Way of Heaven benefits and does not harm; the Sage acts and does not contend.
In Chapter 56 of Laozi the usual interpretation is that Dao is not harmed by men, but this chapter is an assemblage of fragments and these phrases have no subject, so it’s possible that it is the Sage who is not harmed (or benefited) by anything men do:
You can’t succed in benefiting [it / him], you can’t succed in harming [it / him].
In the “Nei Ye”, a Daoist or proto-Daoist chapter in the Guanzi collection, it is unquestionably the Sage (identified with the vital essence, 精) who is impervious to harm, either by men or by Heaven:
Someone who] does not encounter calamities from Heaven and does not suffer harm from men is called a Sage. (Nei Ye, Roth, XV, p. 75)
The indifference of the Sage
In Shen Dao and in one place in Laozi the Sage is described as indifferent, though in Shen Dao he is passively benign:
Heaven has light and does not care that men are in darkness; Earth is fruitful, and does not care that men are impoverished; the sage (聖) has virtue (德) and does not care that men are imperiled不憂人之危也…. (Shen Dao A1)
Although the Sage does not care that men are imperiled, if the people (百姓) conform to the superior and accept their lower status, they will assuredly get peace for themselves; but the Sage does nothing. The Sage in high position does not harm (不害) men, though he cannot keep men from harming each other. It is the people themselves who eliminate the harm. (Shen Dao A4-5)
Heaven is not humane. It treats the myriad creatures like straw dogs.
The sage is not humane. He treats the people like straw dogs.
NOTE: According to the commentaries, straw dogs are ceremonial props which are treated reverently during the ceremony but tossed in the trash afterwards. They are not treated with hostility, but just indifference.
Here the sage’s attitude toward the people is compared to the Olympian indifference of Heaven in a naturalistic universe. Heaven is neither friendly nor hostile toward man and does not intervene in human lives, but does give men what they need, if they know how to use it properly. This naturalistic universe sharply contrasts with the Mohist universe, within which the spirits are constantly approving or disapproving human actions, with the Mencian universe which is slanted toward goodness, and with the universe of Chinese popular belief. The Confucian Xunzi was the most explicitly naturalistic of all, and for the legalists generally the Sage ruler did what needed to be done without concern for whatever momentary cruelty was involved.
The Sage as master of the officials
Chapter 28 ends with three lines which do not seem to fit with the rest of the chapter and were probably just tacked on because it begins with the same word, 樸”simplicity”, with which the preceding passage ends. They read:
If the primal simplicity is broken up it is made into utensils.
If the Sage is employed he becomes the master of the officials
“Primal simplicity” 樸 here can mean simply “raw material”, which is worked by man to make 器: artificial vessels, tools, or weapons. Philosophically in Laozi primal simplicity 樸 means the original childlike or precivilized state of man, which is valorized in Laozi as something precious and innocent we should try to return to. In the couplet, however, the parallelism speaks of the Sage being employed and put to use as a government official. This fits the anti-Confucian tendency of Laozi, since in Confucius 器之 “treat as a tool” (Analects xiii 25) refers to employing an inferior for some task, and elsewhere (Analects ii 12 ) Confucius says “The gentleman is not used as a tool” 君子不器 – i.e., that the gentleman is not an inferior to be employed. (The gentleman is not necessarily a Sage, but the Sage is necessarily a gentleman, at a higher level).
NOTE.器elsewhere in the Daodejing: vessels, chapters 11, 29, and 41; weapons and tools, chapters 31, 36, 50, 57, and 80. In the Analects: vessels, iii 22 1, v iii; tools: xv 9.
At the same time, however, “master of the officials” 官長 makes it a little ambiguous, since while the official is a utensil, the one who supervises officials may or may not be one. This phrase is echoed in chapter 67, where someone who is compassionate, etc., is declared worthy of becoming 器長 “master of the [tools, weapons, or sacrificial vessels]” – again, not necessarily a utensil or tool himself, but possibly someone who supervises the utensils. In a political context 器 utensils are often edged weapons, described in chapter 31 as不祥之器 ill-fated or unlucky tools, and in chapter 36 we read 國之利器不可以示人 “The sharp tools of the state should not be shown to people”, which usually is interpreted to mean that rulers should be secretive and not let anyone know what they are doing or how they’re doing it.
In short, this couplet talks about the Sage’s becoming involved in government in some capacity, specifically in terms of supervising others (the utensils). It does not quite say that the sage himself (against Confucius) becomes a utensil, but the use of the term 用 “is employed” definitely leaves that possibility open. Since most theories of the layering of Laozi now hold that the deepest layer of the text is spiritual, contemplative, dedicated to self-cultivation, and unrelated to government, and that only a later level turns toward involvement in government, it seems that the Sage in Laozi marks that political turn, and that this passage introduces the idea that the spiritual Sage might be willing to take a political role.
The Sage has no mind of his own
In chapter 49 we have quite a substantial (though elusive) exposition of the Sage’s approach to government.
The Sage is always without a mind of his own; he takes as his own the mind of the people. I treat the good as good. I also treat the bad as good, and I get goodness. I treat the reliable as reliable. I also treat the unreliable as reliable, and I get reliability. The Sage in the world is all pulled in. For the sake of the world he muddles his mind. The common people all direct their eyes and ears toward him, and he treats them all as children.
There are a number of tricky passages in this chapter, but the basic ideas can be seen. The Sage does not commit himself and is elusive and hard to read. He understands people according to their own motivations and desires, and not his own. He does not judge people, but takes them as they are and puts them to use. He relies on the good /reliable to be good / reliable, and he relies on the bad / unreliable to be bad / unreliable, and because he knows them for what they are, he cannot be fooled and can employ them. Because he is mysterious, understanding, and benign, the people are devoted to him.
These ideas can be traced to Shen Dao and Shen Buhai; the contrast is with the Confucians or the Mohists, whose programs required reforming people and making them good. The elusiveness of the Sage is pervasive in Laozi, and the idea that even the bad can be put to use is seen in chapters 27, 62, and others. Altogether, this chapter shows how the Sage at work in the world still retains his sageliness and equanimity, and in fact is more effective precisely because of his sagely traits.
Chapter 19 is in a class by itself as the only chapter of Laozi which rejects the Sage. Laozi is a heterogenous book compiled over a considerable period, and beyond that frequently shocks the reader with hyperbole and paradox, so this inconsistency is not terribly surprising. I will deal with chapter 19 here in order not to excessively muddle the argument above.
Wipe out the Sages, get rid of wisdom, and people will profit a hundredfold. (Chapter 19)
This chapter belongs to an egalitarian, anti-cultural group of chapters in Laozi comparable to the Primitivist layer in Zhuangzi: chapters 3, 12, 17, 18, 19, 53, 57 (part), 64 (part), 72, 75, 79, 80, and 81. Of these chapters, only 17, 18, 19, 57, and 64 are seen in the Guodian text, possibly because the others denounced not only moralism and wasteful and overelaborated ceremony and etiquette, but also wealth and luxury. While its anti-cultural message of chapter fits nicely with the rest of Laozi, the “exterminate the Sage” message is contrary to that of at least 26 other chapters in Laozi , even including many of the primitivist chapters, and in fact the opening line of the Guodian version of this chapter does not speak of wiping out the Sage and wisdom, but of wiping out wisdom and distinctions.
The opening line of chapter 60 is not closely related to the body of the chapter, and I am relegating its consideration to this note.
In many cases the opening or closing lines or couplets of chapters in Laozi do not seem related to the rest of the chapter, and even before the Guodian and Mawangdui texts were discovered it was often suggested that the chapter divisions were late and possibly misleading. The chapter divisions of Laozi are not present in the Mawangdui text, and only about two thirds of the Guodian chapters closely match the traditional chapters. Chapter 60 is not part of the Guodian text, but the Guodian text does justify at least the possibility of dividing chapters.
Chapter 60 begins治大國若烹小鲜Rule a large state as you would steam a small fish. When you cook a small fish you don’t turn it too often or cook it too long, and this line is generally thought to advise a minimum of government interference in the lives of the people, a common theme in Laozi.
The opening of chapter 60 can stand by itself, but it makes a good 7-syllable parallel couplet with the first line of chapter 59: When ruling men and serving Heaven, nothing is better than to be sparing 治人事天莫若啬. (“Sparing” 啬here is an agricultural metaphor and evokes the frugality and caution of a farmer; in translations it is sometimes related to “husbandry”.) These two lines begin with the same word, 治, and express similar ideas:
When ruling men and serving Heaven, nothing is better than to be sparing;
Rule a large state as you would steam a small fish.
The opening line of chapter 59 is followed by a long passage in the “chain” or sorites pattern A=B, B=C, C=D, etc. Similar passages are seen at the ends of four other chapters (chapters 16, 25, 52, and 55) and they have always seemed tacked-on to me, more closely related to one another than they are to the rest of the Daodejing. (A version of Chapter 59 is seen in Lushi Chunqiu).
Three of these passages are seen in the Guodian text, and I have classified these chapters as early, so they cannot be regarded as late additions to the text. However, they (along with a few other passages) do seem to me to represent an added subgroup within the early layer of the Daodejing, and by and large the least interesting part of the text. I will discuss this subgroup in more detail later.
In his Jie Lao 解老 chapter (chapter 20) Hanfeizi interprets chapter 60 as follows: if the Sage rules, the government will not oppress the people, the people will not rebel against the government. The sacrifices will be done properly, and the spirits will not bring disasters down on men. This is consistent with the Chinese tradition back at least to Mozi and forward into the imperial period, but Hanfeizi’s interpretation here approaches the entirely secular, like that of his teacher Xunzi. In recent times anthropologists (e.g. Evans-Pritchard in Witchcraft, Oracles and Magic Among the Azande) have interpreted witchcraft, curses, etc. as projections of the “social unconscious mind”. Often, because of the inevitable blind spots imposed by their culture, people facing an unendurable social/interpersonal tension, conflict, or unexpressed resentment within their tight-knit group are not equipped to perceive or explicitly describe it, much less deal with it. It’s common in such cases to blame the social and interpersonal ill-effects of the tension on imaginary invisible forces, and it is also in such cases that people rely on witchcraft and fear the witchcraft of others. This is also the kind of situation where respected and feared healers can intervene and suggest and enable the changes and adjustments which will make things right again. Looking at it this way, the Sage can be given either a secular or a magical interpretation. (This sort of analysis can also be applied to some of the scapegoating moralism and magical explanations and solutions we see in modernized form in our own societies).